16 June 2008

Socotra Being Considered as a World Heritage Site

Egyptian Vulture on a sign at Socotra. Images courtesy of Richard Porter.

Socotra Island with its diversity of endemic species is being considered as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

"Its unique ecosystem, the outstanding endemic flora and fauna and its relatively unspoilt habitats are the main reasons for the island being considered," said Richard Porter, currently an adviser to the Middle East Programme of Birdlife International.

"There are over 300 endemic plants, nine endemic birds, 60 butterflies, 21 reptiles, etc. In terms of globally threatened birds 11 have been recorded on Socotra of which the most important are: Socotra Bunting, Socotra Cisticola, the endangered Egyptian Vulture (Socotra has the highest concentration in the world), Socotra Cormorant and Jouanin's Petrel."

The island which has a land mass of 3,500 square kms, is in the Indian Ocean eastward from the Horn of Africa, and part of an archipelago which includes the smaller Darsa, Samha and Abd El Kurl islands.

Detailed surveys of the birds on the island have been conducted since 1993, when Porter first visited the island with a team from the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. Later he helped initiate and setup the BirdLife Middle East programme in which Socotra conservation is a high priority. This programme is now based in Amman, Jordan, and run by Middle East nationals.

"Ahmed Saeed Suliman, who is knowledgeable on birds (and all wildlife) and who works for the Socotra Conservation and Development Programme, and I have been organising a breeding bird survey of the island and assessing the breeding bird populations since 1999," Porter said.

Ahmed Saaed at Sirhan Lagoon.

Male Socotra Bunting.

A database of all birds recorded is being maintained, and the current tally is 205 species, Porter said, of which 43 are breeders. There are at least 10 endemic subspecies.

His interest in the birdlife of Socotra started 15 years ago on the OSME expedition of 1993 "and I've been visiting most years since 1996," he said. "Its endemic birds and the fact its birds had been little studied, provided lots of chances for new discoveries. In terms of bird endemism, Socotra is second only to the Highlands of Yemen in the whole of the Middle East."

Porter has been captivated by the island and its birdlife.

"I love the island and visit at least once a year," he said. Among the better places to find especially notable birds are the slopes of the Haggier Mountains, Hadibu's Sirhan Lagoon, Qalansiya estuary and the Mahlih Plains.

During his last visit in October and November 2007 , he made several observations of species not previously recorded, including Common Kingfisher and Short-eared Owl. On a previous visit a major new breeding area for the Socotra Cisticola was found.

"My next visit will be in October to continue surveys of the breeding bird populations, set up a monitoring programme on the effects of grazing and continue to survey the Egyptian Vulture population. I'll also continue training SCDP staff in bird survey and identification skills."

The biggest challenge for conserving birds is "tackling over-grazing and development threats from new infrastructures especially roads," Porter said. One particular goal is to have new roads placed in "appropriate places. There is no serious threat from feral animals."

Dragons Blood Trees at the Haggier Foothills.

View of a badly landscaped road, after completion of its construction.

The SCDP is an active conservation programme backed by international funding, and is addressing concerns which may affect the birds, Porter said.

Birding tourism is currently limited. "Less than five birding groups currently visit Socotra each year, but it is increasing," Porter said. There is currently no bird watching community present.

Designation of the island as a world heritage site would lead to "greater international support - both financially and administratively - for resource conservation. It would also provide a valuable 'watch dog' over any potentially damaging developments - such as sections and structure of the proposed new road system."

About 95 km2 (2.5%) of the four islands have already been designated as a nature sanctuary. There are also areas of special botanical interest with unique flora and associated fauna.

A decision on the designation is expected during the 2-10 July meeting of the World Heritage Committee, according to Roni Amelan with UNESCO.

Socotra recognised as World Heritage Site

"The Socotra Archipelago was recently added to the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization list of World Heritage Natural Sites. Many international organisations including BirdLife have long campaigned for the Socotra Conservation and Development Programme's submission for this prestigious designation." - news issued by Birdlife International

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